Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 100-119)



  100. I do not know if Mavis McDonald knows what is the average time it takes for government departments to respond to an e-mail. I do not know whether Mr Broadbent knows in his case.
  (Mavis McDonald) An e-mail coming in externally as correspondence? The general government standards are that we apply the same standard to e-mail correspondence as we would any other correspondence.

  101. You can e-mail through a web site. If you do that do you get a reply?
  (Mavis McDonald) You can access individual e-mail addresses on some web sites that would take you into particular parts of the departments. Of course we do make individual web sites and e-mail addresses known to people, but the basic starting point is that if that correspondence is by e-mail, if there are targets like for example meeting MPs' correspondence in 15 days, that essentially applies to correspondence whether it comes in by e-mail or whether it comes in by hard copy.

  102. So it would not be any quicker?
  (Mavis McDonald) It could be quicker but that is the approach basically.

  Chairman: Thank you, Mr Davies. Mr Alan Williams is your last questioner.

Mr Williams

  103. Mr Pinder, when you applied for your post, did anyone warn you that you were going to be landed with the title of e-Envoy?
  (Mr Pinder) The title of e-Envoy was available at the time when I took over the post because, of course, I had a predecessor, who sadly had to leave because of family illness.

  104. But an e-Envoy?
  (Mr Pinder) The Americans have on occasion referred to me as the `e-Guy'. I am not quite sure whether e-Envoy or e-Guy is better. It is a descriptive title which has its advantages and its disadvantages.

  105. They should have issued you with a cloak of some sort as well. Anyhow, it is very noble of you to take that on. I see that your remit is to derive the maximum benefit for government and the country from the knowledge economy. You co-ordinate government strategy and you galvanise UK businesses—it really does sound like e-Envoy, does it not—and you drive the e-agenda through government. Drive it though? The trouble is you seem to drive it through without any regard to the cost, do you not?
  (Mr Pinder) I think that is absolutely not correct. First of all, my Treasury colleagues would make sure that I have regard to the cost as do government departments. My job is to try to champion the e-agenda and I have tried to do that very hard indeed with a lot of focus. That is my job.

  106. We are told by the National Audit Office that the e-Envoy has made limited progress on the Committee's recommendation that it should develop a methodology—just a methodology—for justifying expenditure on web provision. According to the NAO, your achievements in developing a methodology have been modest. So if you have not got the methodology, how can any of us believe that you actually know what the cost/benefit of what you are doing is and whether the expenditure is justified?
  (Mr Pinder) Since the time the NAO did its work we have been making some progress in that area with our Treasury colleagues. The Treasury are issuing some guidelines on this methodology. It is a matter that is properly for the Treasury as the guardians of the public purse in this respect.

  107. But the NAO is not given to extravagant criticism and, to put this as mildly as I can, is the briefing that you have had from them that you have made limited progress? It says the same for collecting and publishing information on usage and on the take-up of the web sites. How on earth can you sit before this Committee and make any pretence that there is any relationship between the money you spending and the value that we the taxpayer are getting from that money?
  (Mr Pinder) As I tried to say in answer to an earlier question, before a department which is responsible for spending the bulk of this money spends any money they make a business case to the Treasury to justify why they should spend that money, and the normal rules of guardianship of the spend and the benefits to be got from the spend apply in their area.

  108. But in that case, as the man who is the supremo who is guiding strategy, why is it if you are providing this information to the Treasury you do not have a methodology for ensuring that the business plan is good value for money for the Government and for the country when it is being delivered?
  (Mr Pinder) We do have a methodology which is the normal business case that people make to the Treasury. I cannot read the NAO's mind.

  109. We are talking about in practice, not when you are making a case to get an ounce of money out of the Treasury. We are talking about when you have spent the taxpayers' money what have we got to show for it and how do you justify it, how do you relate to it?
  (Mr Pinder) What we have to show for it is a large number of web sites many of which are extremely good which are very heavily used. In the longer term these sites will justify the business cases that they made in the original proposal to the Treasury. A lot of this is capital expenditure which is made up front and the benefits will derive over a period of time as usage of these sites increase and as our experience in operating these sites improves (in the way that Customs & Excise are) in the longer term they will feel they get substantial benefit from having their services on-line. In the short term you have to make the business cases and use your best judgment to deliver a proposal that gets money from the Treasury to put a service on-line.

  110. But as figure 1 points out, the last PAC recommendations numbers 3, 9 and 10 meant that you were expecting to have reliable information on the existence of quality government web sites, yet as I understand it, you do not collect any systematic or regular information on web data traffic, transaction volumes, quality ratings, frequency of update or market visibility. That seems rather a gap in relation to the value of what we are getting.
  (Mr Pinder) We make sure that we collect that information for the sites for which we are directly responsible and we issue guidelines to departments about the information they should collect about their own sites to make sure that they have that information available to them.

  111. How can you be responsible for a co-ordinated strategy if you do not have this information? Otherwise you may issue guidance through an utterly wasteful channel, might you not?
  (Mr Pinder) I am trying to make sure that the strategy we co-ordinate is one of making sure that all services are on-line in an attractive and useful way and we get use out of it. It is the statutory responsibility of the departments themselves to make sure that they manage their money properly and they deliver their services appropriately. We can provide advice and guidance—and sometimes very strong guidance—from the centre to make sure that they get access to common practice and that is what my department focuses on.

  112. That does not encourage me either, in fact it actually worries me because we are told that the DTLR had copied the Office of the e-Envoy's performance regime exactly for local government. Since I do not think much of that regime I am not encouraged to think that it has been disseminated throughout local government. As is pointed out by the NAO, the key best value performance indicator 157 is inadequate. The DTLR, following on your example, collects no systematic data on local authority web sites. It says that checks that extra funding will provide genuine change seem inadequate. That is following exactly upon your model. What is wrong with your model?
  (Mr Whetnall) I am not sure we chase the e-Envoy. The fact is that the money came from the Treasury with instructions that this was a 2005 target about availability and the best value performance indicator asked local authorities to measure what proportion of their services they are getting on-line. We are certainly consulting on how to extend that to measure take-up, mainly to measure customer satisfaction and people's experience of going on-line. But I think across the board we certainly started with a weak information base because we had not been much involved.

  113. With respect, I am not particularly concerned about what you are doing because you are doing what your exemplar encourages you are to do. What I am concerned about is what you are being encouraged to do. Again, we are told by the National Audit Office that the e-Envoy cannot get it systematically established that electronic services delivery is generating savings of public money or quality of service improvements. I do not feel you are very justified to go splashing taxpayers' money in very large volumes around the system when you do not even have fundamental information that we would literally hang another department from the lamp brackets here if they came and told us they could not provide this sort of information before they spent this sort of money.
  (Mr Pinder) I think I should make it clear that I do not go round splashing taxpayers' money about. In fact, I spend very little money in my own department. A lot of this money is spent via departments in furthering the 2005 target which they have been set by government. In order to do that, when they want money from the Treasury they put business cases in which justify their expenditure. My own organisation has focused on tracking government departments' progress towards the 2005 all services on-line target, which is the target that we have been given, through the use of these strategies. Latterly we have said that that is a useful target to galvanise activity but in addition to that target we need to really focus on the take-up so that we do not waste public money. The money that is spent, though, is spent through departments through their accounting officers following them making cost justifications within the department and to the Treasury.

  114. But if they justify it by saying we are doing what the e-Envoy has said and by following his example and if the Treasury is dumb enough to say that is an adequate criterion by which to allocate money—simply that someone else is using the same system—, is this not contrary to everything that this Committee stands for? I am astonished if the Treasury does respond in that way to such a slap-dash approach. You are driving the e-agenda through government? According to departments you have not even set targets so far and one of those departments is admitting that those targets are, effectively, not attainable.
  (Mr Pinder) First of all, I am sure the departments in approaching the Treasury for money do not make slap-dash cases and just say they are just doing what we told them to do. I am sure if they did the Treasury would not stand for it, you are quite right there. The target that we are progressing through government is the 2005 all services on-line target. We have been following that very systematically by asking departments and getting from departments their progress reports on a very regular basis. All those strategies we have taken from departments and we and the department have published. We have also published regular progress reports which we have collected from departments showing how they are doing against that 2005 target. In respect of driving the target we have been given, which is to get all services on-line, I think we are doing quite a good job in making sure that there is very full visibility and that departments are moving towards that target. Latterly I have been trying to develop the policy and encourage departments not just to think in those terms but also to think in terms of take-up, and clearly that is what is happening in departments like Customs & Excise. They have paid a great deal of attention to that and quite rightly so.

  115. You told the Chairman before I came in that there are 1.7 million VAT returns and we are told that processing a return costs on average £1.16, so we are talking about £1.9 million in processing. Is that right?
  (Mr Pinder) I am going to hand that question over to Mr Broadbent as he is responsible for that.
  (Mr Broadbent) A VAT return is more than once a year and in practice we have about 2,000 staff who work on VAT processing.

  116. If, for example, you could get the maximum savings for which we have the indicative cost of 25p for a bank carrying out a somewhat parallel process, you would make quite a considerable saving, would you not?
  (Mr Broadbent) If we achieved higher levels of take-up on VAT the cost of collecting that VAT would be lower.

  117. So why have you not given it higher priority?
  (Mr Broadbent) We are giving it higher priority and in fact the process we are going through is quite interesting in the context of the questions that you and Mr Davies were asking. In the last spending round, in line with the government's policy, we put forward a business case to invest £150 million in e-enabling the organisation which was aimed at putting certain services on-line. We have spent much less than half that money and in spending it we have focused very much on the fact that we are not going to get take-up just getting it on-line so instead of ploughing on and spending the rest of that money we are now going back to the Government and saying, "We need to do something different if we are to achieve take-up", and that is the debate that is taking place at the moment.

  118. Should we be pleased or worried at the fact that DTLR is providing £350 million to promote electronic government amongst local authorities but so far only a quarter have taken it up—that is according to the information we have from the NAO—to enable citizens to pay their council tax. Since they have been guided by DTLR and the departments are being guided by you and you seem to be being guided with a complete absence of relevant information, should we not breath a sigh of relief that there is only a quarter of local government following them?
  (Mr Pinder) I am going to hand over to my ex-DTLR colleague and my ex-Office of the Deputy Prime Minister colleague because they will give a fuller explanation.
  (Mr Whetnall) The take-up is a lot better than that. All but one local authority are taking up the offer of monies for their plans to implement electronic government. We will be able to point quite rapidly to a lot of areas in which there will be very substantial savings arising. I mentioned earlier some work on the customer relations management systems. We have authorities piloting new electronic ways of doing procurement where if you are switching from a system in which you are paying invoices manually from many different parts of a local authority (costing maybe tens of pounds per invoice) to an electronic basis, there is a very substantial saving. We have every confidence that we will be able to demonstrate that real efficiencies are being returned on our support for pathfinder projects, national projects and in the general move of local authorities towards e-government. Not always, again, exclusively web-based because very often they will use an electronic platform sorting out their business processes to offer services on that platform through telephone call centres. Andrew Pinder also mentioned interactive digital television. The savings are certainly there and they are often in the form of moving from cutting out some back office costs to making sure that the front end is better supported and more effective.

  Mr Williams: My time is up but I look forward, as no doubt you do, to your next visit here. Thank you.


  119. Just one question from me. You talked about e-champions. Can you say a brief word about e-champions. How many have you got? Are they on the departments' management boards? Are they gentlemen amateurs, IT experts? How do you assess their performance?
  (Mr Pinder) The e-champion is a concept set up by my predecessor which we have followed. In general they are people who are on the departments' management board. For example, the e-champion for Customs & Excise is Mr Fraser. The e-champion for the Inland Revenue is Mr Tim Flesher who is one of their Deputy Chairmen. By and large, the e-champions are at that sort of level within departments. Their role is to co-ordinate activity within the departments on the e-agenda and to work with us and with their colleagues in other departments at sharing best practice. Their performance is obviously part of their overall performance within the department and their performance review would normally take place within the department. I often get asked by the permanent secretary for the department for my feedback on how that particular individual has risen to that particular aspect of their work. So we try to make sure in the normal course of management of departments that the work they do with us in line with the work they do elsewhere in the department is properly controlled and judged.

  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Davies has one more question.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 13 December 2002